A community gardening project started by a Kennett High School student has earned her a nationally renowned honor from one of the country's oldest institutions.
Eighteen-year-old Mayra Zavala, a senior at KHS, was recently named as one of 25 other students as a recipient of the 2012 Princeton Prize for Race Relations.
Started as a pilot program in 2003, the program has since honored over 300 students from over 20 different cities nationwide for promoting race relations in their communities.
Two years ago, Mayra started the Lafayette Garden Project at the Lafayette Street Apartments in Kennett Square.
Working with donated materials and volunteers from the Chester County Community Gardens and the Kennett community, Mayra and friends created and tended 12 plots - one for each family at the apartments.
The goal, she explained, was to create a self-sustaining project while also fostering interaction between different ethnic groups in the community.
The idea of sustainability, however, was not an easy concept for lower income Latinos to grasp, Mayra said.
"It's just not something that they usually do, it's a cultural difference," she said. "And also a lot of them are stuck in the same routine of working and going home, and not interacting with other groups."
Mayra said that since she moved here from Guanajuato, Mexico with her parents and two older sisters when she was six, she's always found it easy to adapt.
"I think there are so many Hispanics that continue to struggle with that. And even I found that a strong sense of identity was hard, and I always felt I needed to be connected to both Hispanics and with other cultures," she said. "I felt so close yet so distant when I looked at how we lived in same town and have such limited interaction."
She added that while getting groups to interact was difficult, with help from the Kennett community, it slowly but surely began to happen.
"I feel that they can interact with one another more freely now," she said.
Mayra said that during their gardening sessions, sustainable concepts like water harvesting are discussed along with growing and eating healthier vegetables.
She also said that while it's a common belief that racial issues are a thing of the past, ethnic conflict is sadly still a very prominent issue.
"A lot of people feel intimidated, and I understand. it is difficult," she said. "I think that it's ultimately worth all the effort."
Over the weekend, Mayra also attended a reception at Princeton, where she met with the other 24 recipients and discussed their projects.
They also each gave a three-minute speech on their individual projects and their successes.
"They were really great individuals," she said of her fellow winners. "I love to see so many others passionate about bridging the gap between races. Plus it was a very diverse group, which was a refreshing sight."
Mayra will be attending Elizabethtown next fall to study international relations, with a goal of one day continuing to work at bridging cultures.
"The interest has been growing and I would love to continue like that," she said. "But life is what happens when you're busy planning, so we'll see what happens."
Mayra is president of the KHS Spanish club, and is also the KHS student council president.